Times Watchdog | Rory Westmoreland, who bought the derelict fishing vessel Deep Sea, which sank three weeks ago in Penn Cove, has a record of run-ins with the law.

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Rory Westmoreland is a tough man to track down.

When you do find him, though, you’ll likely hear about his string of “bad luck.” How he has to “work really hard just to get by.” How he is “not a wealthy person.” The story will unfold slowly, his deep drawl ambling along until he gets to the question at hand.

It’s about a boat. His boat. The rotting hulk that caught fire and sank in Penn Cove three weeks ago.

At first, he will complain about the government agencies dogging him, asking questions, assessing fines, even making accusations in the media. There’s the Coast Guard, the state departments of Ecology, Natural Resources, and Health.

Then he will say it’s all a big misunderstanding.

Fire broke out on the Deep Sea late on a Saturday night in May and continued for hours until the thing just sank — all 140 rusting feet of it. Some 5,000 gallons of fuel were recovered before the vessel was finally pulled from the muck, an economic and environmental disaster that could wind up costing the state and federal governments at least $2.6 million to clean up. That’s not counting the losses to the nearby shellfish farm.

As government agencies labored over this mess, Westmoreland has mostly been out of town.

The thing is, it wasn’t his fault, he says. Not his fault at all.

Not the part where he towed the decrepit vessel into that cove Christmas Eve. Not the part where he left it there, despite being told repeatedly to get it out. Not the part where he brushed off thousands of dollars in fines.

No, Westmoreland told a reporter, he wasn’t to blame. But at the moment, he didn’t have time to talk. He was too busy dealing with a bunch of other agencies after him for a different set of problems.

It turns out the Deep Sea isn’t Westmoreland’s first run-in with the law. He’s been arrested on allegations of assault, trespass, reckless endangerment. Several women have filed for restraining orders against him, including an ex-wife who wrote in one petition, “Rory has threatened to put a bullet in my head.”

He’s amassed dozens of traffic tickets. On Friday, he was back in court, this time to deal with a warrant issued after he allegedly drove his car at a woman.

He’s also got a history of skirting environmental rules, dating back years.

Funny thing is, he doesn’t seem all that worried.

Neighbors despair

Westmoreland has long made a living on his own terms, his own way.

As a young man, he worked at Rabanco, the big waste-collection company. But he injured his ankle in 1990, and he says he’s been getting state disability compensation on and off ever since. On occasion, he’s invested in real estate, but his main occupation has been trying to make a buck off unwanted junk.

He hasn’t always bothered with the required licenses. The way he sees it, we should thank him — he’s been cleaning up other people’s messes for years.

Friends say he’s hardworking and generous, but neighbors say they’re intimidated by him, a big and lumbering presence they’d rather avoid.

For years, they’ve complained he’s been operating an unlicensed scrap yard — junking cars, storing unknown chemicals, running heavy equipment — on two residential properties in unincorporated King County, near Maple Valley. They call it “a blight.”

While records show he has a history of barreling headlong into trouble, he also seems to manage to back himself out.

Like the time a neighbor, Curt Heikell, said he looked out and saw Spring Lake turning blue. Authorities responded to Westmoreland’s property, which sits just above Heikell’s.

“He was making dog houses out of 55-gallon drums that had concentrated toilet cleaner in them,” Heikell recalled hearing later. “He rinsed them out in the creek.”

Thinking they finally “had nailed him to the wall,” neighbors had a toast.

Yet the problems continued. County code-enforcement officers have been out to Westmoreland’s repeatedly. The sheriff, the State Patrol, the Health Department, even the Environmental Protection Agency, they’ve all been involved.

Another neighbor, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution, recalls hearing heavy equipment rolling around in the middle of the night. Then he heard strange splashes. He crept over and saw a gaping hole in Westmoreland’s yard. “It must have been close to 25 feet from edge to edge and probably at least 12 feet deep.”

By sunup, the hole was covered up, the neighbor said.

There are rules against burying potential toxics, but King County couldn’t just dig up private property.

“All we could prove was that he was moving dirt around,” said Sheryl Lux, a code-enforcement officer. The only thing she could do was require that he get a clearing and grading permit.

In King County and many other jurisdictions, the goal is education and cleanup, not punishment. So as long as he’s making some progress, a violator can forestall action.

“It’s kind of like having a speed limit but never giving anybody a ticket,” Heikell scoffs.

Lux understands the frustration. She said her office has spent untold hours on Westmoreland, with complaints dating to 1986, and 11 enforcement actions. They’ve collected at least $15,000 in fines.

They’ve taken him to court and had his property declared a “public nuisance” as a way to force him to pay for cleanup. No matter what action they take, he just keeps “trying to do what he wants to do,” Lux said.

Westmoreland has a little trick, she said. He “resolves” a complaint by moving junk off one property and onto another. Then someone else complains and the process starts all over again.

A “shell game,” Lux called it.

Westmoreland doesn’t see why everyone’s on his back. First, those things were all in the past, he said, and have been resolved.

Besides, he isn’t the problem, he said. It’s the neighbors. And the county, “swarming me and saying I can’t do this and I can’t do that.”

Permits? Not his thing. Says Westmoreland, “I’ve always kind of believed in ‘live-and-let-live.’ “

Property sellers burned

Last year, Westmoreland began to outgrow his two residential properties and needed somewhere else to keep stuff.

First, he arranged to buy two lots from a neighbor. Nine months into the deal, he changed his mind and stopped making payments, according to Rocky Vaught, whose family owned the property.

Turns out the county had started an enforcement action after it found the property had been regraded and a pipe had been put in a wetland buffer. It’s now Vaught’s problem. He says it will cost about $16,000 in fines and fees. That doesn’t include restoring the land.

After that, Westmoreland arranged to buy some commercial property on Renton-Maple Valley Road. The owner, Aaron Prestegaard, dreamed of retiring to Belize.

But after signing the paperwork, he was stunned to find enormous shipping containers stacked on the property — about 20 of them, filled with tires and who knows what else. Authorities said that wasn’t allowed.

Once again, Westmoreland changed his mind. He didn’t want the property anymore.

Westmoreland has since bought property in Oroville, Okanogan County, and has hauled away several truckloads from Prestegaard’s property. But if he doesn’t get rid of the rest of it, Prestegaard worries he’ll be the one stuck paying fines.

Westmoreland pulled a similar routine on another property not far from there, according to county records. That property owner, too, found himself the target of code enforcement.

“This is what he does,” Heikell said.

Big plans fall through

“I’ve always had a passion for boats and the sea,” Westmoreland says.

So begins the saga of the Deep Sea — Westmoreland’s version, anyway.

The boat had been abandoned by its previous owner at the Port of Seattle. It had no means of propulsion and likely was contaminated with asbestos. Stuck, the Port posted it on Craigslist.

Initially, Westmoreland contemplated using the rusty heap to retrieve garbage and abandoned nets from beneath the sea. He’d seen a TV program on that.

He pronounced this “a commendable plan.” However, he did not follow through.

Idea No. 2 was to get his captain’s license, pull the top deck off, “and just make it like a big open kind of a barge to haul metal with.” This would be “a lot more economical” than making “200 trips with a dump truck.” This idea, too, was scrapped.

Truth be told, he explained, he often buys things without entirely thinking it through.

“This is my life story,” he said. “I’ve bought several trucks and didn’t have a job for it immediately but I’ll be darned if it didn’t end up getting put to work and coming in real handy for me.”

And so he bought the Deep Sea for $2,500. What he neglected to do was arrange a legal place to moor it.

It’s unclear why he chose Penn Cove. He claims he bought Whidbey Island property that included a place to tie up, but The Seattle Times could find no record of that. He explained that once he learned he couldn’t moor there after all, he backed out of the deal.

For months, the boat sat in Penn Cove.

Ian Jefferds, who co-owns Penn Cove Shellfish, was not happy. He saw the boat’s poor condition. He saw it listing. He saw it anchored within swimming distance of his shellfish. In a good wind, he worried, it could break free and tear up his mussel rafts.

He called the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) repeatedly, asking it to do something.

The agency said it was trying. A boat is allowed to moor in state waters for up to 30 days. In January, the DNR asked Westmoreland move it. After that, the agency told him he would be assessed daily fines for trespassing, starting March 13. By May, fines topped $5,000.

Then Westmoreland claimed he no longer owned the boat, producing a document, dated March 13, he called a “bill of sale.” The alleged buyer denied this, and the document did little to persuade DNR.

All told, the agency says, it contacted Westmoreland at least 17 times over five months. It contemplated taking possession of the Deep Sea using the Derelict Vessel Removal Program, but knew its disposal could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And besides, there were boats in worse shape that were higher on the priority list.

They’re still waiting for Westmoreland to pay the fines.

Fears come true

On Saturday, May 12, the Deep Sea caught fire. Workers at the shellfish farms hauled up the oysters and clams, but still, more than a million mussels remained.

Jefferds stood on a bluff and watched all this unfold. In the midst of the chaos, Westmoreland reached him by cell. Jefferds grilled him.

He asked whether Westmoreland had any insurance, whether he was going to “make this right.”

“I was letting him know it was going to shut us down,” Jefferds recalled. “I don’t think he heard any of that.” Instead, Westmoreland talked about his string of bad luck — and wondered whether Jefferds knew of anyone who wanted to buy a boat.

Jefferds just shook his head, finally heading back to town after a long, hard day. Not 15 minutes later, he got another call.

The Deep Sea had sunk.

Reporters Jonathan Martin, Sara Jean Green and Eric Pryne, and news researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com